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Archive of the Month May 2014 – Gender Debates at the General Synod of 1914

RCB Library Notes

Added on 01/05/2014

Gender debates at General Synod 2014
Gender debates featured large at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland held 100 years ago in May 1914, as May’s Archive of the Month online presentation from the RCB Library reveals. This exhibits an extensive collection of press–cuttings on everything to do with the Church of Ireland for the entire period from the run up to the disestablishment of the Church in 1869 and up to 1917 put together by a former archdeacon of Dublin, the Revd Robert Walsh (1843–1917). Specifically it focuses on a particular debate at the 1914 General Synod (the Church’s AGM and supreme decision–making body) when the burning issue of whether or not women should be allowed to sit on parish vestries, act as churchwardens and parochial nominators (nominating the incumbent) was raised for the first time.

Walsh’s collection in its entirety consists of 16 enormous volumes of press–cuttings which he scrupulously put together during his clerical career. Born in Dublin in 1843, he was a son of the Rt Hon John Edward Walsh (1816–1869) Master of the Rolls in Ireland, and grandson of the Revd Dr Robert Walsh, vicar of Finglas parish in Dublin between 1839 and 1852. He was ordained for the diocese of Down in 1865, but after an initial curacy served out the remainder of his career in his native Dublin – first as curate of St Mary’s 1867–1874, next as incumbent of Malahide union 1874–1889, and finally as incumbent of Donnybrook from 1889 until his sudden death in 1917. He was made a canon of Christ Church Cathedral in 1900 and appointed as archdeacon of Dublin in 1909, in which position he also continued until his death. Like his father before him, Robert Walsh took a keen interest in record–keeping and history from the beginning of his clerical career, captured by his extensive collection of press–cuttings which he meticulously gummed onto loose–leaf pages, adding his own annotations and observations, later to be bound together into volumes.

Walsh’s cuttings cover all manner of church life at central and local levels, which provide great detail and colour to events such as diocesan synods, parish meetings, controversial subjects, and annual events – the key one being the General Synod. Between 1874 and 1982 the General Synod was held in a purpose–built hall adjoining Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. As the record makes clear in Walsh’s chronology of events for the 1914 General Synod, following the traditional synod service held in the adjacent Christ Church Cathedral, clerical and lay members (then all male) processed across the dramatic covered footbridge that remains one of Dublin’s iconic features connecting cathedral to synod hall, to begin four days of their official business.

In his opening presidential address, the Primate and Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John Baptist Crozier, set the general context of the synod, by outlining the changing state of Ireland, the looming crisis in Europe, and then flagging various items of church business as they would come before the assembly – including one which he accurately predicted might become contentious – the representation (or lack of it) of women on vestries. Urging ‘respectful consideration of the petition’ to be presented as the archbishop framed it ‘from some of the most faithful daughters of the Church asking for a certain definite management position’ Crozier outlined the value of ‘women on our vestries’. This, he argued, could not be exaggerated especially in remote parishes, where he noted particularly ‘the zeal and self–denial of women … to support parish finances. Women were vital cogs in the wheels of individual parishes as organisers, fundraisers and managers, yet they had no voice nor could they vote in relation to the distribution of the Church’s funds. Treading with obvious caution, the archbishop signalled that perhaps the petition had gone too far, as he was sorry the vestry representation issue had been brought together with the parochial nominators one, the latter he predicted would prove a step too far. Nevertheless he gave the petition his blessing, and signalled he wanted no disrespectful debate or prejudice, warning this was ‘no sex war of women who fear not God neither regard man’, but the appeal of women who ‘are amongst the noblest Church workers in Ireland’.

After the primate had concluded his speech, Canon J.A.F. Gregg (then professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin and a canon of St Patrick’s cathedral, later to be archbishop of Dublin) presented the petition signed by ‘1,125 women members of the Church’ praying that the General Synod might be pleased to amend chapter III of the Constitution. It was agreed that the motion and debate would be postponed until the following day at 3.30pm when Mr Justice Madden [High Court Judge John Madden] who seconded the motion was available to participate.

In spite of Canon Gregg’s and Judge Madden’s best efforts, the response from other speakers at the synod was mainly negative – revealing the difficulties of the more liberal–minded and progressive to move things forward as the online presentation shows. A last ditch effort to amend the motion to deal only with the vestry representation and leave the churchwarden and nominator issues for another time failed, and following a vote both this amendment and original motion were heavily defeated.

In his annotated remarks (added to the volume after he had gummed in the press cuttings) Walsh revealed his own views on ‘the female franchise’ issue. He does not appear surprised that the motion was heavily defeated: it had been opposed by both clergy and laymen in populous parishes where the balance of numbers on vestries was not an issue; clergy who might have been more willing to support the controversial motion appeared ‘afraid to show their colours’, and left the synod hall before the vote was taken; while the ‘chief supporters of the motion were clergy and laity representing parishes with only small populations’ where he emphasised with an underline ‘ladies’ – but not ‘suffragettes’ might be franchised.

Indeed, it would take a further six years before the Church of Ireland constitution (www.ireland.anglican.org/constitution) was amended to allow women to be included on the register of vestrymen [sic]. Women were not permitted to serve as churchwardens and parochial nominators until the constitution was consolidated in 1947; whilst the terms ‘vestrymen’ and ‘synodsmen’ (as opposed to vestry and synod ‘member’) continued to be used to describe members of these representative bodies – irrespective of their gender – until 1960. Thanks to Archdeacon Walsh’s painstaking compilations of press cuttings (MS 297 at the RCB Library) we are enlightened on a whole range of issues about the nature of decision–making and modest pace of change within the central structures of the Church, 100 years ago.

To view the online presentation, see: www.ireland.anglican.org/library/archive

For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood
RCB Library
Braemor Park
Dublin 14
Tel: 01–4923979
Fax: 01–4924770
E–mail: susan.hood@rcbdub.org